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In praise of experience

The Emerald City and Other Essays on the Architectural Imagination By Daniel Willis. Princeton Architectural Press, 1999. 301pp. £14.95

This first book by Daniel Willis is a collection of essays, all previously unpublished. Without exception, they are rich in texture and broad in sweep, incorporating material from very different disciplines. Engagingly controversial, they are unreservedly, if on occasion unreasonably, romantic.

The illustrations are all the work of the author.

Initially one might feel inclined to regard Willis' drawings as too personal, lacking the more objective authority that a photographic record would provide. In fact they add an important dimension to the book. Willis' interest is in the architectural imagination. As such his concern is with matters of interpretation. His focus is on the ways in which we grasp and value architecture; and so the drawings help us to see aspects of the architectural world through the eyes of a particular architectural thinker.

Throughout these essays we are persuaded that there is no objective standard, no scientific proof, that could measure the success of architecture. 'We can take heart that the 'vague activity', the practices that are truly architectural, can never be isolated and therefore cannot be eliminated, ' says Willis. These essays return over and again to rail against the dominance of scientism and the reduction of architectural experience to quantifiable data.

Reacting to the latest examination procedures introduced to establish professional recognition in the United States - where a computerised-design exam is to be marked entirely by computer - he complains: 'The type of reductionism necessary to make this last shift. . . is frightening to contemplate'.

But Willis does not fall into the trap of deriding all things new in favour of some fantastic past conjured by the alienated self and expressed in melancholic nostalgia. Indeed he warns us against just this. Extending Kundera's metaphor in The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he writes: 'While nostalgia may originate in our wish for an authentic return to a simpler state where burdens are more accepted and freedoms are limited, our modern desire for autonomy is so strong that we cannot accept the limits in order to enjoy the rewards.What we end up with is lightness disguised as heaviness, the wish for freedom from the present dressed in the superficial look of the past. We appropriate those aspects of the past that can most readily be detached from their material circumstances - usually the appearances of things - and discard everything else.'

This last is insightful. We cannot return to the mere 'look' of the past, for the real conditions of that past no longer prevail.And the imaginative content of architecture - which provides architecture with its place in human affairs - has to bear more than the mere appearance of formal design. It has to engage the kind of life that we now lead. It has to support the weight of our lives, so to speak.

There is passion in these essays.Willis cares for architecture and has embarked upon the path of protecting what is precious about it. I shall recommend this book to my students. My only concern is that he makes the imaginative experience of architecture into something that seems beyond criticism and thereby beyond justification. His detractors will regard this as mystification.

But there are many ways of making sense and many ways of providing an 'argument'. We don't always need to measure things and to compute our various measurements; it may be enough just to point out features of a building, a painting, a sonata or a poem and say aloud to those who will listen: 'Feel it like this.' The work under view will be illuminated. Sometimes, especially in aesthetics, what cannot be said can be shown.

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